Back to school

Can a dotcom driver turn Indonesian education around?

Back to school

In October Indonesian President Joko Widodo startled teachers, parents and political seers by making Nadiem Makarim, 35, Minister for Education and Culture.

The Harvard-educated entrepreneur is not a politician. He has no public sector experience. The last two ministers were also outsiders – but senior academics. Makarim’s skills are in applying information technology to everyday matters. He upended the taxi industry with his on-line transport system Go-Jek, now reportedly worth about US$10 billion.

President Joko hopes his captain’s pick will drive the nation’s bogged school system back on track. But steering the lumbering education road train around the bollards of rigid thinkers won’t be like zipping past potholes on a motorbike.

Dr Totok Suprayitno gets a tad defensive when talking to a foreign journalist.  

No problems handling local media, but the head of research and development at the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) has a fair idea of the issues that puzzle outsiders.

There’s one particularly awkward question:  Why is the state of Indonesian schooling so bad when the constitution mandates 20 percent of  spending must go on education?   

Suprayitno tried but got choked by jargon. The World Bank explains the conundrum better than most:

“By 2018, spending on education was greater than any other sector, approximately meeting the 20 percent target of total government expenditure. However, since the national budget is 15 percent of GDP, this education expenditure is only three per cent of GDP, one of the lowest in the region.”

“The figure is now 3.3 per cent,” said Suprayitno. “Yes, it’s below Malaysia with almost 6 per cent, but all countries face challenges and these are always changing. One size does not fit all. Even in your country (Australia) you have problems.”

This is where the stats get squishy. Federations like Australia, the United States and Malaysia fund education nationally and through the states, so comparisons can be flawed.

“Education control used to be based in Jakarta but is now being decentralized,” Suprayitno said, adding: “But too much decentralization isn’t good. We have to concentrate on the quality of learning outcomes.”

The last sentence means “check results”. It’s the sort of verbiage  beloved by educationalists worldwide. Their highly competitive profession chews up experts and theories, and then vomits messes of acronyms and geekspeak for others to mop up – and recycle. 

A corny and mildly sexist joke in the business says it’s unwise to chase a bus, a pretty woman or an education policy, as another will pass by shortly.

At the heart of the squabbling is understanding how humans learn – a topic still furiously debated. How are we able to look at sets of markings and turn these into speech where ideas can be expressed?

Cognitive science is the discipline and one of the most prominent experts is Virginia University psychologist Daniel Willingham, a critic of the traditional “learning styles” theories once popular in Indonesia. These hold that individuals absorb knowledge differently so need specialized teaching.

Willingham has focused on study habits which he claims have been shown to work through scientific research. 

Topping the policy pop charts for the last few years have been responses to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Every three years it tests 15-year-olds across the world in reading, maths and science. The results are supposed to show how well adolescents will handle problems when they grow up and want to enter the workforce.

The thinking behind PISA is this mantra: “Modern economies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.”

In 2018 more than half a million teens from 80 countries took PISA tests; the results have still to be released. In the 2015 study Indonesia ranked 62 out 72 participating nations. Although there were marginal improvements from the 2012 results, the overall outcomes were dismal.

One glimmer of hope: Indonesian girls are doing better than boys across all subjects and particularly reading. Not many want to take up the hard disciplines like science but those who do are usually female. 

The World Bank has analyzed these and other figures to conclude that 55 percent of Indonesians who complete school are “functionally illiterate” compared with 14 percent in Vietnam and 20 per cent in other OECD countries.

Demographic trends suggest that by 2030 the population will be around 296 million (currently estimated at 271 million) and heavily skewed to youth; the country has a median age of 28 compared to the US and Australia's 38. 

This means the 4epublic will soon have a vast and overflowing labor lake. Whether these potential employees will be able to navigate their way into work – and jobs that are satisfying and well paid – will depend on the education they’re getting now. In the recent past the need was for brawn. Now it’s brains.

Almost all Indonesian children finish elementary school. Then the dropouts start, with just above half completing secondary school according to the World Bank.

Indonesia is the 16th largest economy in the world. Optimists are predicting it will be in the top 10 by 2030, a forecast which depends on investment  and workforce qualities. As economists say, a strong economy begins with a strong, well-educated workforce. 

In this gloom Indrah Pratiwi is a beacon. The daughter of farmers in a remote West Java village, she was the first in her family to get a tertiary education. After graduating in international relations from the nation’s top public campus Universitas Indonesia she got work with the MEC gathering data.

The 29-year old  could be a poster child for Indonesia’s post millennials: “I’m educated and independent. I have a good job which is well paid. I can set an example of what a woman from an isolated area can achieve if she stays at school.”

But her research led to some embarrassing discoveries.

At a Jakarta workshop for teachers from distant districts she projected charts illustrating her findings. Every one showed Jakarta, Yogyakarta (Central Java) and Riau (Central Sumatra) tops on school retention, reading and most other subjects.  

The images also had West Kalimantan and Papua at the bottom. Troubled by these stats she’s bypassed education authorities by using social media to show what’s possible.  This is not Pratiwi’s job; it’s her passion.

“I write stories about children being successful through education,” she said. “Boys in particular can’t see the value and want to get working with the men in jobs like fishing.

“I put my stories on Facebook and send them back to children in my village. They keep asking for more.”

Then comes the crunch:  When asked if she’d want any children she might have in the future to be teachers Pratiwi’s response was decisive: “No. The salaries are so poor.”

She said that during the presidency of Soekarno (1949–1967) teaching had status and was a well-rewarded profession; however it had since been diluted by training colleges lowering entry standards to boost enrolments. She alleged this had attracted mediocre students wanting a secure job with a pension rather than drawing idealists motivated to help lift the next generation.

In October almost 90 teachers gathered in Jakarta for the half-day workshop run through an Australian aid program called Inovasi. This claims to use “a distinctive locally focused approach to develop pilot activities.” Through autopsies of these programs it hopes to discover what does and doesn’t work.

Its projects are in East Java, Kalimantan and the eastern islands of the archipelago. The program will die mid 2020 unless renewed. Further funding should depend on results but Australia has been felling aid to Indonesia.

In 2015 it cut funding by 40 per cent from A$542 million to A$323 million. Next year the axe will chop deeper to A$298 million.  

When the budget was first slashed the Australian Foreign Minister was Julie Bishop.  Now out of parliament she works for one of the biggest foreign aid contractors Palladium. This manages the Inovasi program so there are hopes her influence may keep the show on the road.

Erix Hutasoit, the provincial communications officer for an Inovasi project in Kalimantan, stressed the need to see every district separately, and not just because of ethnic, cultural and language differences.

“In the past it was them and us,” said Hutasoit. “The teacher was the ultimate authority.  He or she sat on a platform at the front of rows of desks and told the students what to write and read.”

Modern classroom practice has teachers interacting with students, encouraging them to express themselves and question; this behavior bumps into some cultural traditions which expect little people to accept whatever a big person says is factual.

“We’re not hostile to Western ways of thinking and doing, or ideas from abroad,” Hutasoit said. “But the structure and economy of every village in Kalimantan depends on the environment. Some schools are really small. It’s not like Java where the policies are made.”

Kalimantan takes up almost three quarters of the island of Borneo. The rest is owned by Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and Brunei. The province is four times larger than Java although with only 12 per cent of the population. President Joko has authorized the building of a new capital in Kalimantan to ease pressures on overcrowded Jakarta.

Ratih Niati is a Dyak, the original inhabitants of Kalimantan. She teaches because “I want to be useful to my people.” She’s clearly a star, covering her class walls with pictures and being energetically engaged with students by reading stories.

Children’s books in the West are no longer an afterthought to adult fiction and now have the status of literature with high-level incomes for ace authors and illustrators. 

British writer Joanne (J K) Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series pitched to teens is reported to be the world’s first billionaire author. Her books have been translated into Indonesian, although her fantasy world of wizards in Hogwarts School sits more comfortably in British society than Indonesian culture.

Hutasoit said commercial publishers were now becoming more adventurous and realizing that pictures helped children read and release their imaginations. However there were no examples provided at the workshop.

Indonesian school books tend to be wordy and uninviting; only those approved by checkers in Jakarta get used after being scrutinized for subversive views and ensuring the right moral messages are enforced. 

This is a hangover from the authoritarian Soeharto era of last century when heavy rules were imposed on publishers to purge manuscripts of opinions hostile to authority.  Bookshops were more like pharmacies, with volumes kept inside locked cabinets like addictive drugs. This led to a vast reduction in reading which modern educators are trying to address.

A “World's Most Literate Nation” study last year by Central Connecticut State University ranks Indonesia bottom but one of 61 countries in terms of reading interest. The lowest is Botswana, the highest Finland.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) earlier reported that just one in every thousand Indonesians read books regularly.

Qoriatul Azizah is in the 0.1 per cent. Although from another Inovasi project she wasn’t at the Jakarta workshop. Had she attended and brought along her teaching gear the East Java chalkie would have been a star turn.

She spends much of her personal time designing large colorful story books dominated by art, a stark opposite to the pedestrian text-dense titles provided by the ministry and its departments.

“Most of our students come from homes without books,” she said. “That means the parents don’t even tell fairytales to their children so there’s no culture of learning by sharing. 

“We have a rich oral tradition using wayang (shadow) puppets so there’s no shortage of stories.” 

She has modeled her books on those developed by a non-sectarian non-governmental organization called Room to Readbased on the US West Coast. It’s funded by philanthropists and claims to have “benefited 16.8 million children across more than 37,000 communities in 16 countries” since it started in 2000. 

It began operating in Indonesia in 2014. In 2017 along with the Google.org charitable foundation it started ‘”a ​digital ​platform ​that ​combines literacy ​professional ​development ​videos ​and engaging ​children’s stories.” It’s producing more than 200 ​​digital storybooks in Indonesian and 20 teacher-training videos.

Over three years Room to Read says it’s gathered a stable of a hundred writers and illustrators who have produced 60 “culturally relevant” new titles to support the official National Literacy Movement. Around 420,000 books are being distributed to 4,000 schools.

All good and worthy – until the mists lift and the size of the mountain is revealed: 

No Western states are as complex and huge as Indonesia, with more than 50 million students and close to three million teachers. It’s the fourth largest education system in the world after China, India and the US.

About 16 percent of the nation’s 250,000 primary schools are supervised by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and 7percent are private; the rest are run by the MEC.

Teacher Azizah says she wants to go overseas to study classroom techniques. Her principal Asri Suprihatin has visited schools in Malaysia and Singapore – and it shows.

Suprihatin runs Sekolah Dasar Negeri (State elementary school  SDN) Punten 1, just outside Batu in the Central East Java hills, and is the sort of campus which gives visitors hope that the archipelago’s education system can one day rank high on world lists.

Every Thursday is Java Day when the 500 students and 31 teachers dress in traditional Javanese clothes, eat Javanese food and speak Javanese. It’s the school’s initiative. In this district Indonesian is the second language among those born locally.

Punten 1 staffers appear to be flexible and professional; absent is the grim weariness which infects some restrooms: “This would be a great job if it wasn’t for the kids.”  

However, English teacher Lena Letor said it was difficult to handle classes of 30 students in small rooms when presenting difficult subjects. She still focuses on grammar when modern methods stress communication and building vocabularies.

The adults interact easily with their charges in a bright and airy environment which is more garden than yard. It helps being among apple orchards and vegetable farms 1,000 meters above the baking plains below.

The teachers have changed their 40-year old sterile classrooms into art galleries with murals of fun facts to stimulate young minds.  

It’s the norm in the West, but still rare in Indonesia where decorations are often considered distractions. The Lowy Institute gave a damning report last year saying the “high-volume, low-quality enterprise” of Indonesian education was ill equipped to meet expectations of creating an internationally competitive system:

“This outcome has reflected inadequate funding, human resource deficits, perverse incentive structures, and poor management but has most fundamentally been a matter of politics and power.

The political causes of poor education performance include the continued dominance of political, bureaucratic, and corporate elites over the education system under the New Order and the role that progressive NGOs and parent, teacher, and student groups have had in education policymaking since the fall of the New Order government (in 1998), making reform difficult.”

One of the Room to Read program’s main goals is to boost literacy, particularly among girls in poor nations. Fortunately in this area Indonesia has lifted its game; according to UNESCO 99.7 per cent of young people can now read and write. But as reported earlier that’s not necessarily “functional literacy.”

The problems come with comprehension, retention rates and school leavers equipped for a workforce rapidly moving from manual tasks to digital solutions.

A simple example: Indonesian motorists now have to buy cash-loaded cards to tap-and-go on toll roads. For decades the gates have been controlled by staff taking cash. Good for drivers as the bottlenecks have gone. Bad for the semi-skilled workers whose jobs have also driven away.

A Strategic Review essay last year put a lens over the post-school training sector struggling with poor facilities and yesteryear’s instructors using equipment no longer found in modern factories.  

When the story was published the education portfolio was in two places, with technical and further education (TAFE) slotted into the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education. Under the new minister TAFE has returned to Education in the hope that the whole school experience can be integrated.

The World Bank says almost 26 million Indonesians live below the poverty line, and another 20 per cent “vulnerable of falling into poverty, as their income hovers marginally above the national poverty line.”

The consequences of millions of unwanted youth in overcrowded cities competing for a shrinking number of manual jobs are also worrying. An Australian government report put it succinctly:

“Unemployment is a major life event. It can have a devastating impact on people’s lives. It affects not just the unemployed person but also family members and the wider community.  

The impact of unemployment can be long-lasting. As unemployment becomes more long-term, its impact becomes more far reaching, often affecting living standards in retirement. The loss of income by the parents can damage the prospects of the next generation.”

This is the stark reality facing Makarim and his staff.  If he doesn’t tear his hair out and quit in frustration from dealing daily with bureaucratic procedures from the Mesozoic Age, he has just five years to deliver the goods.

The next election will be in 2024. The law forbids Widodo standing for a third term. The eighth president will have their own solutions to any lingering education crisis and probably their own Dr Fixit, for everyone has been to school and is consequently an expert.

It took Makarim a decade to develop Go-Jek when he was mainly dealing with can-do business hustlers and cogent problem-solvers, not can’t do bureaucrats and self-serving politicians.

To make the FINISH line and still be sane, Makarim will need to make many extraordinary educational policy and administration backups and U turns. 

These would warrant a book if successful. “Go-Ed” maybe? If it’s a best seller that might prove Mr Dot.com’s Gen X skills are just what’s needed to move Gen R2R (Raring to Read) into the fast lane.



Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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